English Careers

A Lexical Paradox: Teaching English Abroad

I’ve been a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Scholar in Pondicherry, India, for a few months now. On some days, I feel like I’ve inspired a young mind; on other days, I feel like an asshole.

These kids are fascinated by me, but I think some resent me, a random brown person from America, who has come to teach them English. The English teacher could have at least looked more like a foreigner because whiteness is synonymous with being American here—everyone thinks I’m Indian, though I am Bangladeshi-American. One student said something that stuck with me: “I don’t want to learn English, I want to learn how to sew panties”—she’s studying tailoring. I didn’t have a proper reply for her.

My students are underserved and sometimes impoverished, which is why a vocational community college was a more affordable and practical option for them. Some do not have parents and take care of their household, while others are parents themselves. English is not important to them—finding a means to live is. I try to explain that English is empowering and that knowledge is power, as my father would say. He used his degree to pave his own path and make more money than he had come from. Some of his last words to my sister and me were that he left us at the “top” with everything we needed. We had money. We had homes. We had cars. And though he often judged our decisions to study outside of the doctor-lawyer-engineer pyramid, we had an education and would secure careers. We didn’t need him anymore.

I kept his words close. My whole family was always insistent on education and learning, which was inextricable from knowing English. In fact, because we were Americans with the right accent, we should be rich. Much richer than our parents who strode along with broken words and confused gazes.

When I teach grammar or common vocabulary, and sometimes clearer pronunciation, I can’t help but wince. I know I’m not turning the world over with my acts, but now I question even the minor good they will do.

Unfortunately, the mother tongue of a colonizer has become the bloodline of the world. I frame this message to my students by emphasizing the functional advantages of English in vocational work settings. They can use English to expand their clientele. It can be used across different Indian states and social media.

I am also trying to teach my students to pursue higher education. I tell them they don’t need to stick to this one vocation they’re studying, and if they master English, progress will become easier. Anything is possible with the right tools.

At the same time, I wonder—what use is a new language as a tool when responsibility and catastrophe come knocking at your door? And how can I have students shed their embarrassment when they can’t mimic the words exactly like me? I tell them it’s not about perfection, but understanding. However, I know deep down both my parents would vehemently disagree.

Because for all my parents’ cars and houses and accomplishments, some people would still snicker at that missing article or preposition or slightly wrong inflection. And it is during these moments that my parents would mask their embarrassment with a snarl and a sputtering—”Look how far we’ve gotten without [English].”

Like my students, they hate, fear, and admire English all at once.

I now pose this question to my fellow English teachers and lovers—how would you navigate this lexical paradox?

Are you a Sigma Tau Delta Alumni member? Consider submitting a blog to WORDY by Nature to share with your fellow Sigma Tau Delta members how you have been using your English degree.

Sumaita Hasan
Theta Beta Chapter, Alum
Hunter College, New York, NY


Sigma Tau Delta

Sigma Tau Delta, International English Honor Society, was founded in 1924 at Dakota Wesleyan University. The Society strives to

  • Confer distinction for high achievement in English language and literature in undergraduate, graduate, and professional studies;
  • Provide, through its local chapters, cultural stimulation on college campuses and promote interest in literature and the English language in surrounding communities;
  • Foster all aspects of the discipline of English, including literature, language, and writing;
  • Promote exemplary character and good fellowship among its members;
  • Exhibit high standards of academic excellence; and
  • Serve society by fostering literacy.

With over 900 active chapters located in the United States and abroad, there are more than 1,000 Faculty Advisors, and approximately 9,000 members inducted annually.

Sigma Tau Delta also recognizes the accomplishments of professional writers who have contributed to the fields of language and literature.


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